Flashback Friday time! And we’re going back quite a bit — to Olestra’s heyday.
Concerns about financial relationships between health professionals and certain sectors of the food industry are now making mainstream headlines around the world, but many in the realm of public health have been writing about them for over a decade.
Consider, for example, this 2002 study — “Authors’ Financial Relationships With the Food and Beverage Industry and Their Published Positions on the Fat Substitute Olestra — published in the American Journal of Public Health.
- “The Procter and Gamble (P&G) indigestible fat substitute olestra was approved as a food additive by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1996 with the proviso that olestra-containing products carry a warning statement about the additive’s potential negative effects on gastrointestinal function and nutrient absorption.1 Since that time, concerns about laxative effects and nutrient depletion have continued to be debated in the medical and nutrition literature and in the lay press.”
- “P&G conducted an extensive marketing campaign for olestra, both before and after approval. The campaign included financial support of health professionals through “research grants, travel funds, honoraria, educational materials, samples, and meals.” Industry support of health professionals is controversial because such relationships may pose a conflict of interest.”
- “We asked 2 questions: Are authors who support or whose research findings support the use of olestra more likely than neutral or critical authors to have financial relationships with P&G? Are authors who support the use of olestra more likely than neutral or critical authors to have financial relationships with any food or beverage company or trade group? To answer these questions, we examined authors’ financial relationships with P&G and with other food and beverage companies and trade groups and compared them with their published positions.”
- “Our first question—whether authors who supported the use of olestra were more likely than neutral or critical authors to have financial relationships with P&G—was answered affirmatively. Eighty percent of the supportive authors had at least 1 financial interaction with P&G, compared with 21% of neutral authors and 11% of critical authors.”
- “The second question was whether authors who supported olestra were more likely than neutral or critical authors to have financial relationships with any food and beverage company or trade group. The answer was, once again, yes. Ninety-six percent of the supportive respondents, compared with 50% of neutral authors and 44% of critical authors, had financial relationships with at least 1 member of the food and beverage industry.”
- “Associations between the authors’ published positions on the safety and efficacy of olestra and their financial relationships with the food and beverage industry were analyzed across 6 categories of funding. A clear, consistent association was found on 3 of the 6 categories—honoraria for speeches, research grants, and employment or consultation. The association was strongest for research grants and employment or consultation. All 40 authors who were listed on the articles as affiliated with P&G were classified as supportive.”
- “This study cannot rule out the possibility that the causality of the relationship implied by the results—that authors’ opinions were influenced by their financial relationships with the industry—is not reversed. Food and beverage companies may well seek out relationships with researchers and practitioners whom they know to be supportive of their products.”
On that last point — the seeking out of relationships can nevertheless be a red flag, as it allows for industry-friendly bias to pass itself off as neutral. If a soda company seeks out a health professional who believes sugar is nowhere near as harmful as most health experts make it out to be, that relationship is more about public relations and damage control than science.